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Livestock sector must contract

Numbers of farm animals in the European Union are not within a “safe operating space” for the climate and nitrogen, states a new report from the RISE foundation.

Inspired by the planetary boundaries identified by Johan Rockström in 2005, the Rise foundation explores whether there is safe operating space for livestock in the European Union. They recognise that livestock contributes to values such as nutrition and health, pasture and residue utilisation, nutrient cycling, culture and livelihoods. But it also has several negative impacts, such as overconsumption, climate harm, nutrient surplus, water and air pollution, biodiversity and land degradation, antimicrobial resistance and zoonoses, and compromised animal welfare (table). Of these variables they selected four for an attempt to quantify the boundaries: human nutrition, pasture utilisation, climate impact and nitrogen surplus.

Starting with nutrition, they recognise that it is possible to survive on a vegan diet. So, from a strict standpoint livestock are not needed. But veganism is assumed not to be a culturally accepted diet by the vast majority. Instead they focus on the suggested National Dietary Recommendations for meat, dairy and eggs. Since these are not the same for all member states they used average values and then compared these with data on what people actually eat. It was found that throughout the European Union the intake of meat is above the recommendations, and in 19 member states consumption is more than double the recommendations. It is therefore possible to reduce consumption by 65 per cent on average. The situation for dairy and egg consumption was more mixed, with some member states consuming above the recommended level, but other member states consuming less than this level. However, on average, consumption could be reduced by around 20 per cent to bring it in line with the recommendations.

For pasture utilisation, they made some rough estimates. According to Eurostat there are 59 million hectares of “permanent grassland”, of which one third corresponds to “rough grazing areas” in the European Union. The authors assumed grazing intensities of 0.5–1 livestock units per hectare and halved this intensity on rough grazing areas. This gives a figure of 24–49 million livestock units, compared to the current 74 million ruminant livestock units in the European Union. This means that it should be possible to reduce livestock numbers by one to two thirds while still managing permanent grasslands.

For greenhouse gas emissions, there is a well-defined commitment for 2050 of 80 per cent reductions, as well as intermediate targets for 2030 and 2040, of 40 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. There are however no specific targets for agriculture. One can argue that compared to the combustion of fossil fuels it is not possible to reach zero emissions. But doing nothing or little within the livestock sector would mean that it would occupy the entire emissions space left in 2050. The authors argue that agriculture should contribute as much as other sectors.

Compared to current emission levels that have gone down since the base year 1990, it would require emission reductions of 21 per cent, 47 per cent and 74 per cent for the three dates. That would translate to emission reductions of 3.5 per cent annually – a rate that cannot be achieved through efficiency gains alone.

Nitrogen surplus was a much harder nut to crack. Unlike greenhouse gas emissions the negative impact of nitrogen emissions depends on where they happen. This means that allocation of livestock could be an alternative to reducing numbers in order to minimise their negative impact.

However, researchers have previously set a global boundary for nitrogen fixation of 62 million tonnes of nitrogen a year, which can be translated into a per capita boundary of 8.6 kg of nitrogen per year. If this is to be transferred to member state level it gives a big allowance to member states with a large population, and vice versa. And this would probably not deliver the ideal situation for nitrogen emissions, since they cause less harm if they are more evenly distributed. However, as a benchmark for the entire European Union they suggest that the net balance for nitrogen should be reduced by 62 per cent.

Although the report fails in its ambition to come up with an unambiguous number on the safe operating space for livestock, it is clear on the direction the European Union needs to take. Fewer numbers are necessary to meet environmental ambitions. And there is space for reductions without compromising on areas of grazed pastures and dietary recommendations. The authors recognise that the lower bound for livestock is more about cultural preferences, which can change over time.

In the last part of the report they explore the options for a shift within the livestock sector. They list a number of technical interventions that can be made within the livestock industry, such as manure management and introducing new types of animal feed. But they conclude that “the key general actions to deal with these challenges are to reduce wasteful over-consumption of animal products, switch towards plant-based protein and encourage substitution of new and novel protein for animal protein”.

To succeed in this task they believe that the first priority is a campaign to raise public awareness. Though there is a growing awareness in the research community about the problems associated with livestock, this is not reflected in the general debate and certainly not in official documents. They refer to the Commission’s communication on the future modernisation of the CAP and the preamble in the proposed regulations for the new CAP as recent examples of this.

They also recognise that the livestock industry itself fails to fully acknowledge the problems that it is causing. To some extent farmers talk about reducing the negative environmental impact, but never so far as questioning the numbers of livestock. But the authors also accept that it might be too much to expect a well-established sector to embrace that degree of self-criticism – especially when consumers and governments are relatively quiet.

The authors also call for more research. And specifically, that the EU should take on and answer the question that is reflected in the title of the report: What is the safe operating space for EU livestock? And how can it be realised?

Another tool for a shift is implementing existing regulations. They note for example that countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have been more successful at implementing the nitrate directive, having a more forceful stance than France, which chose a more participatory approach.

They also argue that the Common Agricultural Policy could assist in the restructuring of farms. They recognise that this will not be a uniform process; within some regions livestock activity will have to contract and disappear, while in other regions it will have to relocate, change size and change management.

Finally, they stress how important it is that the European Union takes the lead in moving towards a safe operating space for livestock: “this can help set the standards and procedures which others will follow”.

Kajsa Pira

What is the Safe Operating Space for EU livestock? by the RISE foundation

Table: Progress in measuring boundaries of the safe operating space for EU livestock

Impact of livestock What variables to measure impacts? What defines the (L) lower or (U) upper boundaries? EU28 result
Human nutrition & health Human daily intake of animal proteins (L) National Dietary Recommendations  Lower bound: Meat: 65% of current consumption, milk 80–90%, eggs 80%
Utilisation of pasture, crop by-products & residues Grazing of permanent grasslands Utilisation of by-product and residue streams (L) Areas & sustainable grazing densities (L) Product availability & feeding rates Lower bound: between 1/3rd and 2/3rds of current ruminants
Culture & livelihoods Culture – not quantifiable Livelihoods, an outcome not a target (L) Balanced territorial development    
Climate harm GHG emissions (U) Paris agreement emission reduction targets. Upper bound: emission reductions required: 21% by 2030 47% by 2040 74% by 2050
Nutrient flows: water & air pollution Nutrient balances (N only) Ammonia emissions (L) Minimum dietary Nitrogen (U) None discovered (U) air pollution targets. Net N balance reduction required of 62%
Biodiversity & Land degradation Farm land birds and insects Soil characteristics Not defined  Not defined
Antimicrobial resistance & zoonoses Non-therapeutic antibiotic use Disease outbreaks Not defined Not defined
Animal welfare This does not lend itself to quantitative targets Not defined Not defined

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